The Vietnam War was a watershed event in U.S. history; one that reverberates powerfully down to the present. We have been vividly reintroduced to that awful epic struggle by the public television documentary — at once riveting and repellant — that has been playing over recent days. A friend who, like me, came of age with the Kennedy administration, was told by his worldly-wise father: “Every generation has its war; this is yours.” And so it was.
The legacy of that war is most obviously seen in our contemporary domestic politics with its toxic divisions and deep distrust of government. As one veteran of the war commented in the film, “I was a member of the last generation that assumed our government would never lie to us.” When the White House (first Kennedy and then Johnson) said this war was necessary, thousands signed up to join with little impulse to question or doubt the call. One casualty of the war was trust; another was the Selective Service System (the military draft). After Vietnam, America’s wars would be fought by career professionals. We would no longer compel masses of young men to join and fight a war whether they wanted to or not. By the time it came to an end in 1975, the war had become so deeply unpopular that the entire relationship between American society and the armed forces had to be rebuilt. The Army, itself, emerged from the war a profoundly damaged institution rife with internal dissent and disaffection. It, too, had to be rebuilt.
One of the more interesting sequels to the war has been the choice American voters have made in their presidential elections. After World War II, service in the military became something close to a requirement for a presidential candidate. From Eisenhower through George H.W. Bush, that remained the case. The one exception was Ronald Reagan, who “fought” the war on the home front as movie actor. With the election of Bill Clinton the pattern changed. Clinton had been an active participant in the student anti-war movement and had not served. Subsequently, we had three presidential candidates who served in uniform in Vietnam (Gore, Kerry and McCain) and each lost to candidates who had no such credentials. We now have a President who is of the Vietnam generation but evaded the draft. Some will find that statement unfair and perhaps it is. But as one who had multiple deferments (including medical) and chose to go anyway, I have little empathy for the rich kid whose father found a doctor willing to pronounce that young Donald was medically unfit. In the recent campaign, candidate Trump had a hard time recalling what ailment he was supposed to have had (bone spurs) and then which foot it was supposed to have affected.
With the war nearly a half-century behind us, the more important question is what lessons that conflict has for American policy today. The list is a long one, but two specifically conceptual lessons are often overlooked.
First, it is critically important to understand what the military calls “context.” Context refers to the realities of an arena of potential conflict — geographic, cultural, historical, political and so on. Robert McNamara, secretary of defense and a key architect of the war, lamented in his later years that he had no expert who could give him an in-depth understanding of Vietnam as a country. When Kennedy first assembled his foreign policy/defense team, Vietnam was a remote and little understood place. But expertise was available. Perhaps the world’s best authority on Vietnam was the French journalist Bernard Fall, author of numerous books and a veteran of the French wars in Indochina. Fall lived in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from McNamara. But the secretary never consulted him. There was fatal hubris that Americans were smart and resourceful enough that we didn’t need to go through the painstaking business of learning, really learning, about another country. We saw the same syndrome play out years later when the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, with little knowledge and many illusions regarding what it would encounter there.
There was another intellectual failure related to context. Donald Gregg, former CIA station chief in Saigon and one of this country’s best strategic minds, commented in the documentary about U.S. reaction to the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. “We should have seen it as the end of the colonial era in Southeast Asia, which it really was. But instead, we saw it in Cold War terms … as a defeat for the free world that was related to the rise of China. And that was a total misreading of a pivotal event, which cost us very dearly.” At the end of World War II, the Vietnamese communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, was trying to reach out to the United States. He sent a letter to President Roosevelt (apparently never read) and had a team of American OSS agents with him in the jungle. In announcing his campaign to end French rule (with the Americans standing beside him), he quoted liberally from Thomas Jefferson. Imagine an alternative reality where the Truman administration established contact with Ho and some sort of understanding was reached. While improbable, it is not entirely fanciful and in such a case the Vietnam War might never have occurred. From the outset, U.S. leaders saw Ho Chi Minh through a particular intellectual prism and that perception had profound consequences. Perhaps that prism was valid, but perhaps not. There was an alternative and that alternative was never tested.